I have to admit that it took me a few seconds to get used to Benedict Cumberbatch on a horse. His natural urbanity did not seem to sit quite right in the middle of a Montana cattle drive circa 1925. But, great actor that he is, as soon as his character Phil Burbank turns to speak to his brother George (Jesse Plemons) I am with him, lost in the magic of Jane Campion’s movie.
The cattle drive is on its way to Rose Gordon’s (Kirsten Dunst) hotel and restaurant. During their stay, George (the nice brother) proposes to Rose and she accepts (her husband, we hear a little later, has, somewhat conveniently, just committed suicide!) while Phil (the decidedly bad brother) viciously derides Rose’s tall, thin, effeminate son Peter (Kodi-Smit McPhee, so incredibly good as Viggo Mortensen’s little boy in John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”) whose papier mache flowers are the centerpiece of each table. Rose quickly moves into the brothers’ large ranch house packing Peter off to boarding school (he wants to be a doctor) with George fitting the bill. A hostile Phil meets her in the living room and there is no escaping his animosity. His hatred of Rose is never explained. Is it because she’s a woman? Is it her presence in the house? Is it her coming between him and his brother, or a combination of the above? He’s especially harsh when she plays her new piano (purchased by George, of course). As soon as she commences playing her party piece, “The Radetzky March” (we all know this piece of music, but it will never sound quite the same to us again!), Phil joins in on his banjo upstairs (what we hear is actually Jonny Greenwood playing the cello) and, although what ensues is not exactly “Deliverance“, we know that this is a duel to the death. Gradually, under all of this psychological pressure, Rose begins to take comfort in the bottle. By the time Peter returns for Summer Vacation she is a raging alcoholic!
Rose’s decline, after her arrival at chez Burbank, is quite the plunge. Dunst, however, is so good, so heartbreakingly real, that she makes it all believable. An actress who has been superb in so many movies, gliding back and forth with ease between lead and support; this is the role that finally gets Dunst her due and, hopefully her first Oscar nomination.
After Phil realizes that he can hurt Rose more by befriending Peter rather than mocking him, he teaches him how to ride a horse and starts showing him around the ranch. Phil has had quite a checkered past (including at stent at Yale!) but his greatest influence and, dare we say it, love, was a farm hand called Bronco Henry (in one scene Phil masturbates with Bronco’s old handkerchief). Gradually, Phil’s attitude toward Peter changes, especially after Peter quickly dispatches of a rabbit and both Phil and the audience realize that he is capable of cruelty. Also, Peter has taken to riding around the ranch alone and, when he sees a dead steer, he carefully and scientifically, with gloves – anthrax is rampant in the herd – removes the hide, his premedical studies coming in handy.
The stage is therefore set with Phil and Peter as men who feel something for one another, gay men from two different generations who, although it is still the gay dark ages, especially in Montana (there is always a “Brokeback Mountain” echo to the movie and Annie Proulx acted as a consultant to Campion), have already experienced different levels of freedom to be themselves (Peter has told Rose about a special friend in college). And then there is Peter as Rose’s avenger. He is a difficult character to fathom and Smit-McPhee holds his cards very close to his chest only gradually revealing a Peter who is at once much more capable but also much more ruthless than the audience expects. Segue to the movie’s climactic scene with Phil and Peter alone in the horse stable at night. Phil has promised to make Peter a lasso using the trusted methods of Bronco Henry but he cannot complete the process because Rose has purposely sold all of his rawhides to a travelling Native American salesman. Peter, however, says that he has his own cache of carefully collected (read anthrax contaminated) rawhides from his journeys around the ranch. As the two complete the project, Phil, encouraged by Peter, begins to reveal more and more about his relationship with his old pal. There is lot of sexual tension in the air and just as we are sure they are going to be all over each other; CUT! It’s the next morning and Phil cannot get out of bed because he is sick.
Campion directs this “psychological Western” with an expert hand, helped immeasurably by cinematographer Ari Wegner who references the painters Andrew Wyeth and Lucien Freud as well as the photographs of English photographer Evelyn Cameron in her compositions and Jonny Greenwood’s haunting atonal score. The entire cast is excellent including Plemons who, unfortunately, does not figure prominently in the movie’s second half as the story shifts towards Phil and Peter. However, his earlier scenes with Dunst are charming and delicate, in marked contrast to what is going on around them. Something beautiful in this unforgiving landscape.